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Decarbonising Britain won't work: study

Pious targets don't butter no parsnips

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The UK's climate act is "all but certain to fail" and alternative approaches should be considered, according to a new study. The act commits the UK to cut its CO2 emissions by a third in just 13 years, and by 80 per cent by 2050.

Roger Pielke Jr is a professor at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and a visiting professor at University of Oxford's Said Business School who has accepted the case for cutting carbon emissions. However, in a new journal article he says the Act is unrealistic, setting symbolic and therefore meaningless targets instead of practical policy.

A projected UK population of 82 million by 2050 would produce 80 per cent more than the CC Act's target. Assuming modest growth of 1.3 per cent over the period, the goal becomes even more unrealistic. [*]

"This level of growth would add another 440 Mt of carbon dioxide to the 2050 total, for a total of about 1,200 Mt - ten times the 2050 target. And in 2022 this rate of growth would add about another 135 Mt of carbon dioxide emissions, for a total of 738 Mt, approaching twice the 2022 target." Pielke writes.

Pielke criticises the great and the good who served on the Climate Change Committee, which advised Parliament and effectively "wrote" the act, for not doing the sums.

Rapid "decarbonisation" is possible, but not as rapidly as the Act demands. For example, the UK's emissions measured in equivalent economic output (in tonnes of CO2 per $1k of GDP) fell from 0.85 tonnes of CO2 to around 0.42 tonnes in 2007 - largely due to the closure of most coal mining. That's around the global average, and the lowest figure out of five major economies, including China, the USA, Germany and Japan. However, two to three times that rate will need to be sustained in the years through to 2050, if the pledge is to be kept.

"There is no recent precedent among developed countries with large economies for the sustained rapid rates of decarbonisation implied by the Climate Change Act. Such rates necessarily must be several times greater than observed in the UK in recent decades, and based on different contributors as the sectoral shift away from manufacturing has its limits."

With its reliance on nuclear power, France has a lower figure of 0.30 tonnes per $1,000/GDP - but Pielke points out it took 20 years to fall from present UK levels to where it is now. Pielke has suggested 30 new nuclear power stations by 2015 would achieve the goal.

How was the figure of 80 per cent agreed? You may recall the Government proposed 60 per cent, but political grandstanding by the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives - each keen to be seen to be Greener Than Thou - forced the government to raise the target.

As we noted at the time, the unrealistic target was criticised by Greenpeace member and Labour MP Rob Marris, "The public will ask 'why should we bother doing anything at all?", he noted.

The Commons passed the legislation by 463 votes to 3, and with similar unanimity in the upper chamber, where former Chancellor Lord Lawson called it "the most absurd Bill that this House and Parliament as a whole has ever had to examine."

The Sir Humphreys are clearly sensitive about the impact of the legislation. A recalculation of the costs and benefits saw £1bn shaved off the cost of the Act recently, in a written answer left in the Commons library without any announcement. ®

Bootnote

You may be wondering why, if more people means greater emissions, Pielke doesn't advocate population control in the UK - the solution favoured by vole stranglers, bedroom Strangelove fantasists, and our upper crust ecologists. He doesn't address that here, but did in a talk at Aston University last year, Ben Pile reported here. It's because population reductions take too long to have any meaningful effect on CO2 emissions. So there.

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